Thursday, July 5, 2012

Pop Noir: ABBA's "The Visitors" Revisited

The Visitors LP cover, shot at Julius Kronberg's studio in Stockholm, Sweden
The Swedish quartet ABBA opened the 1980's with a sublime start in Super Trouper. Their seventh album continued their ongoing trend toward marked maturation without sacrificing their sublime poppiness.

ABBA's mentioned sound growth evolved from the innocence that personified their initial post-Eurovision win. They accomplished this with ABBA-The Album (1977), a catalyst for their change and how ABBA continued to propel Euro-pop to new heights. As ABBA attained more success it took a toll on the interpersonal workings of the relationships that were core to ABBA's (marketable) appeal.

Before recording for their eighth album The Visitors started, Benny and Frida's separation landed a double blow to their '70's persona. Agnetha and Björn had preceded their groupmates in divorce around the Voulez-Vous (1979) period and commercially it hadn't shaken ABBA. Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, Anni-Frid "Frida" Lyngstad all felt that ABBA could still push onward, despite their changing attitudes toward one another and the transforming musical climate.

Musically, their spirits were emboldened by the success of Super Trouper which had parlayed a portion of their stated personal ills into creative gold. The Visitors sought to achieve a similar balance, with Björn and Benny constructing the words and music for their former flames Agnetha and Frida to bring to life. Only a month after Benny and Frida's separation, the sessions began on March 16th, 1981 and concluded on November 14th, 1981. The wrap came just a few weeks shy of the album manifesting on November 30th, 1981. It would be ABBA's last record.

ABBA had been one of the few acts that transitioned seamlessly into the electronic ebb of the 1980's from the previous decade. Benny and Björn had never shied away from new technology and found ways to use it mutually with other organic sonics. That principal guided the overall vision of where ABBA's new album traveled. Super Trouper owned a mood swashed with occasional uptempo shifts, The Visitors however maintained a gloomy atmosphere. No strangers to story songs, ABBA sandwiched those along with telling songs that revealed the fragility of the group.

Political themes, specifically "Cold War" flavored, wove through the icy title track and the catchy cadence of "Soldiers." On the former, "The Visitors" featured an alarmingly claustrophobic vocal dressing the scene of a Soviet dissident under soon-to-be duress:

I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me. The sound, so ominously tearing through the silence. I cannot move, I'm standing numb and frozen among the things I love so dearly, the books, the paintings, and the furniture. Help me...

The "Heads Over Heels" single cover
Adult narratives pulsed in other areas of the LP. The loss of childlike innocence ("Slipping Through My Fingers"), serenity in solemnity ("Like an Angel Passing Through My Room"), and boredom leading to sexual adventure ("Two For the Price of One") played out. Even the lightest fare of the record, "Head Over Heels," was undercut with a knowing, dark humor.

The music, lush and varied, utilized the synth style of the day tastefully as heard on the dark companion to "Thank You For the Music" in "I Let the Music Speak." "When All Is Said and Done," "The Winner Takes It All" of The Visitors, featured Frida in the lead vocal seat. The song allowed her to express her own ache over her dissolved union with former husband Benny:  "I know that we (Björn) talked it over, and Björn asked me if it was sometimes...too emotional to sing those lyrics. But I mean, that was also in a way a challenge." Frida confided this in 1999 when asked about the track. Over the rushing music, Frida confidently handled the cut with care and candor that made for fascinating, if sad listening.

ABBA, circa 1982 for The Singles-The First Ten Years
Four singles were pulled from The Visitors, each released in a variety of global territories**: "One of Us" (U.K. #3, Sweden #13, (West) Germany #1, Ireland #1), "When All Is Said and Done" (U.S. #27, U.S. Dance #7, U.S. A/C #10), "Head Over Heels" (U.K. #25, Ireland #10, France #10), "The Visitors" (U.S. #63, U.S. Dance #8).

The album itself placed respectfully on a plethora of charts around the world**: U.K. #1, U.S. #29, Japan #12, Sweden #1, France #12, AU #22, (West) Germany #1. The showings indicated ABBA held a decent grip on the general international market, barring America where they'd always come and gone. Critically, The Visitors was a complete triumph. Bruce Eder of AllMusic Guide pinpointed the personal changes of the ABBA as an inspiration. Despite this, synth-pop, among a legion of other emerging trends, were galloping onto the musical landscapes. In fact, New Romantic darlings The Human League's third, and seminal, Dare (1982) LP uprooted The Visitors from its British chart perch. Soon, the "ABBA's old fashioned" spiel began. It didn't help that the group themselves were slowly tiring of working with one another, but somehow they still felt the sparks of creativity between them. Work began on a tentative follow-up to The Visitors. It produced three amazing songs: "The Day Before You Came," "Under Attack," and "I Am the City." The first two tracks were tacked onto the end of a best of collection entitled The Singles-The First Ten Years (1982). They became ABBA's last two commercial singles.

Single cover for "Under Attack"
"The Day Before You Came," a tale of romantic release from everyday mundane prisons, worked in reverse. Delivered by Agnetha in a dim and lovely fashion, it came off melancholy versus joyful. "Under Attack" was a lean gem that placed ABBA directly in the contemporary climate, but (again) without losing their melodic sensibility.

"The Day Before You Came" and "Under Attack," along with a set of prime quality b-sides "Should I Laugh or Cry?" (flipside of "One of Us") and "Cassandra" (flipside of "The Day Before You Came") appeared on the reissue of The Visitors in 2001. They fit perfectly into the bruising mood of the album. Subsequent b-side of "Under Attack" ("You Owe Me One") and the misplaced "I Am the City" appeared on the Thank You For the Music (1994) boxset and the More ABBA Gold: More Hits (1993) collection. ABBA's hiatus, never formally announced  spread into the '80's as each member ventured into various endeavors.  All four members had careers prior to ABBA, Frida and Agnetha sporadically carried on solo work in Sweden during the peak period of the group. The ladies had moderate success post-ABBA. Specifically, Frida finally cracked the U.S. market with her album Something's Going On (1982), produced by Genesis icon Phil Collins. The song "I Know There's Something Going On" penetrated the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (#13). Its parent album boasted songwriting from Per Gessle (soon-to-be one half of the fellow Swede pop duo Roxette in the mid '80's) and a cover from the late, Donna Summer's lost album I'm a Rainbow (1981/1996) cut "To Turn the Stone".

Agnetha released two albums in the immediate wake of ABBA's dissolution, Wrap Your Arms Around Me (1983) and Eyes of a Woman (1985). Woman was notably produced by 10cc member, Eric Stewart.  Björn and Benny continued to work together, leading up to a relationship with theatre wiz Tim Rice which produced their musical Chess.

"The Day Before You Came"
Directed By: Kjell Sundvall & Kjell-Ake Andersson

Nine years separated The Visitors and ABBA Gold, the hit best-of package that kick started the ABBA revival. Underneath all of the praise (ABBA were inducted into the notoriously fickle U.S. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2010), ABBA's music continues to be the heart of their relevance. Every fan, and critic, has their period they love most in ABBA's history. However, there was something raw and honest in ABBA's latter work, The Visitors being an excellent example. Forty years after their first single "People Need Love," ABBA continually proves pop has a reach that other genres can only dream of. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: **: Because of ABBA's literal global presence, not every chart statistic for their singles and this album could be represented in its entirety. A simple online search will reveal credible sources that detail ABBA's rich chart history through their 1972-1982 span. The Visitors, like all of ABBA's work, is in print. For any official information, past, present, & future, on ABBA, visit their official site.-QH]

1 comment:

Moanerplicity said...

"Sublime poppiness" is an apt description because that's exactly what ABBA brings to the table. Even if you're not hardcore fan (I'm not), you can so easily name an ABBA song & most probably spit some of their lyrics. That's just how infectious their sound was, is & has become.

They've played an unusual & yet necessary role in pop culture & when it's all said & done, most musicians would give their eye teeth to leave behind the kind of legacy that ABBA has created.

And at the end of the day, that's pretty damned EPIC!

Nice write, Q!